WASHINGTON -- A Phoenix man and other parents whose children died at boot camps for troubled youths gave wrenching testimony before Congress on Wednesday, urging other families to avoid enrolling teens in such programs until there is more oversight of them.
Bob Bacon of Phoenix recounted how his 16-year-old son, Aaron, died at a wilderness camp in Utah in the 1990s.
"We were conned by their (the camp's) fraudulent claims and will go to our graves regretting our gullibility," Bacon told members of a House committee.
The Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, also announced it has identified thousands of allegations of abuse, some involving death, at boot camps since the early 1990s. It cataloged 1,619 incidents of abuse in 33 states in 2005.
"Buyer, beware," said Greg Kutz, who led the GAO investigation. "You really don't know what you're getting."
Kutz said the GAO closely examined 10 closed cases where juveniles died at residential treatment camps. In half of those cases, the teens died of dehydration or heat exhaustion. Other factors were untrained staff, inadequate food or reckless operations, the GAO said.
Five of the 10 camps are still operating, some in different locations or under new names.
"Ineffective program management played a key role in most of these deaths," Kutz testified before the House Education and Labor Committee.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who chairs the committee and requested the investigation, has sponsored a bill designed to encourage states to enact regulations.
"This nightmare has remained an open secret for years," Miller said in a statement. "Congress must act, and it must act swiftly."
The death of Bacon's son was one of the 10 cases studied by the GAO, but not the only one with an Arizona connection. The sample cases did not include names, but some were identifiable through news reports.
One was the death of Anthony Haynes, 14, at the American Buffalo Soldiers boot camp in Arizona in 2001.
One of the state's most high-profile camp deaths was that of Nicholas Contreraz, a 16-year-old Sacramento youth who died in 1998 while being subjected to discipline at the Arizona Boys Ranch near Queen Creek.
Bob Bacon's account was among those Wednesday that outraged House committee members.
Bacon said Aaron was sent to the camp because of minor drug use and poor grades. The father said he was fooled by the owners of the Utah facility into believing his son would be well cared for.
Instead, Aaron was forced to hike eight to 10 miles a day with inadequate nutrition and was not given protective gear to withstand freezing temperatures, Bacon said. When Aaron complained of severe stomach pains and asked for a doctor, his pleas were ignored even though he had dramatically lost weight and suffered from other serious symptoms, Bacon testified.
According to court documents, the boy's condition was ignored for 20 days, until he collapsed. The autopsy showed he died of an acute infection related to a perforated ulcer.
Five camp employees pleaded guilty to negligent homicide, and another was convicted of child abuse. All were sentenced to probation and community service.
Kutz testified that camp employees studied by the GAO were often poorly trained. He said kids weren't properly fed and were exposed to dangerous conditions, their cries for medical assistance ignored.
He said that in only one of the 10 sample cases was anyone found criminally liable and sentenced to prison.
The residential programs, designed to instill discipline and character, can be privately run or state-sponsored programs and sometimes include an educational or school-like component. They are loosely regulated by states. There are no federal laws that define and regulate them.
The programs are marketed to parents who are at a loss as to how to help emotionally troubled teens, Kutz said.
Jan Moss, executive director of the National Association of Therapeutic Schools and Programs, a trade group, said many kids have been helped by the treatment programs.
She said the industry is taking steps to improve, but she added, "Clearly we still have a very long way to go."
Kutz said there is no comprehensive nationwide data on deaths and injuries in residential treatment programs.
Auditors found thousands of allegations in lawsuits, Web sites and state records.
"Examples of abuse include youth being forced to eat their own vomit, denied adequate food, being forced to lie in urine or feces, being kicked, beaten and thrown to the ground," Kutz said, adding that one teen was reportedly "forced to use a toothbrush to clean a toilet, then forced to use that toothbrush on their own teeth."
At the boot camp where Anthony Haynes died, children were fed an apple for breakfast, a carrot for lunch and a bowl of beans for dinner, the GAO said.
Haynes became dehydrated in 113-degree heat and vomited dirt, according to witnesses. The program closed, and the director, Charles Long, was sentenced in 2005 to six years in prison for manslaughter.
The autopsy on Nicholas Contreraz showed that after Boys Ranch staffers punished and humiliated the teen for days, he suffered from a severe infection in the lining of his lungs. Five employees were charged criminally, but all counts were dropped. The ranch now operates under the name Canyon State Academy.
Julie Vega, Contreraz's mother, recently told The Arizona Republic, "I feel like he was sacrificed, and some good things changed for the better because of him. But nobody really paid a price for his death."
Associated Press, Gannett News Service and Dennis Wagner of The Arizona Republic contributed to this article.
The Government Accountability Office examined the deaths of 10 children in private programs. They found common problems in most cases:
Some of the cases highlighted in the GAO report:
A 15-year-old date-rape victim from California enrolled in a 9-week wilderness program in Utah in 1990 to build her self-confidence, her parents said. Brochures described camp counselors as "highly trained survival experts." The parents would later learn, however, that their daughter would be going on the program's first wilderness trek -- a five-day hike on federal land. She collapsed and later died of dehydration.
According to the GAO, the staff ignored her complaints and accused her of faking her illness. Police records say the staff did not call for help because they lacked radios. No criminal charges were filed.
A month later in Utah, a 16-year-old Florida girl struggling with drug abuse died of heat stroke while hiking at another 9-week wilderness program. The program brochure described "days and nights of physical and mental stress with forced march, night hikes and limited food and water."
The state child protective services agency ruled it was a case of child abuse. The camp was closed and the owner placed on a state list of suspected child abusers. But the owner was able to open other camps in other states and abroad.
In March 1994, two former employees of that camp opened the Utah program, where 16-year-old Aaron Bacon died.
A 15-year-old Oregon boy died at an Oregon wilderness program in September 2000 of a severed neck artery. The boy had refused to return to the camp site after a group hike. Two staffers held him face down for almost 45 minutes in an attempt to bring him under control. The death was ruled a homicide, but a grand jury did not issue an indictment.
Roberto Reyes, 15, died of complications from a spider bite in November 2004 at Thayer Learning Center in Missouri, which describes itself as "a military-based Christian boarding school." A state investigation concluded that the staff "did not provide adequate treatment," the GAO said, but the state does not license such programs, and no criminal charges have been filed.
The staff tied a 20-pound sandbag around his neck when he was too sick to exercise, the GAO said. The family settled a civil lawsuit against Thayer for about $1 million. The facility's owners denied wrongdoing. Messages left at the school and with its lawyer were not returned.
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